The Guns of San Diego

Stories from local policemen of their encounters with a very well-armed public

Dan Hawkins: ‘‘Finally the driver got nervous and started looking around."
  • Dan Hawkins: ‘‘Finally the driver got nervous and started looking around."
  • Image by Craig Carlson

It was three o’clock in the morning, and San Diego Police Officer Dan Hawkins, a young cop just two months out of the training academy. was working the graveyard shift, alone. Earlier that night, over on Grape Street, two police officers had been killed and a third wounded while making an arrest of minors drinking in Balboa Park. The suspect in that shooting, a young Latino who had a prior arrest record for gun charges, hadn't been found yet, and on his radio Hawkins could hear the search developing.

Sean Donovan receives, tags, and stores the 2250 guns San Diego police officers confiscate from the citizens of this city every year.

Sean Donovan receives, tags, and stores the 2250 guns San Diego police officers confiscate from the citizens of this city every year.

But where he was, parked at a Mobil station on the corner of West Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs, everything was quiet, and Hawkins was using the time to. fill out an incident report. “Just then,” Hawkins recalls, “this red Mustang GT came around the corner right in front of me, screeching a little tire, doing a little fishtail. I looked up and said to myself, 'Naw, I gotta finish this report. Better let him go.' Well, the guy went down the street about 150 yards, slammed on his brakes, did a U-turn, and came back! Yeah! Like he was trying to bait me or something. I said to myself, ‘He’s gotta be a deuce. Gotta be sick or something. I better check it out.’ ” Hawkins went after the Mustang, expecting a chase, but to his surprise, as soon as he turned on his overhead lights, the car immediately pulled over. “I said, ‘Damn! What’s up?’ ” Hawkins got out of his car and approached the Mustang cautiously, then stopped and watched through the rear window for a while. “There were two guys inside, both of them navy — your typical conservative white guys.

Ward Rickman:  "I thought he was trying to shank [stab] me. so I hit him in the back of the head."

Ward Rickman: "I thought he was trying to shank [stab] me. so I hit him in the back of the head."

But something about them didn't seem right. Your average person would have been looking around, wondering where’s that damn cop and why doesn’t he just write me a ticket so I can get out of here. But these two guys were just sitting there, stiff as boards, looking straight ahead,” Hawkins says. He turned down his handy-talky so they couldn't hear it, waited maybe another sixty seconds, then crept up on the passenger side, watching carefully through the side windows.

‘‘Finally the driver got nervous and started looking around. As he turned I could see on his lap, in his right hand, he had a gun — a .380 automatic — pointed into the door and covered with his left hand, so if I’d come up on his side all he had to do was lift the gun, pull the trigger, and he’d be popping caps. I drew down on the guy and probably would’ve shot him, except that when I said, ‘Stop! Don’t move!’ he dropped the gun to the floor.”

Robert Kanaski: "I felt the outside of his pocket, and saw there was something hard inside. It turned out to be a .22 derringer.”

Robert Kanaski: "I felt the outside of his pocket, and saw there was something hard inside. It turned out to be a .22 derringer.”

Hawkins kept the two sailors sitting there at gunpoint while he called for a cover unit to assist with the arrest. There were so many units tied up at the Grape Street shooting that it took a long time for help to arrive.

Back at the substation the two sailors were put in a holding room, and their conversation was monitored from another room. ‘‘Man, I didn’t know what to do with the gun!” the driver said.

‘‘You should have gone ahead and shot him,” the passenger replied.

Hawkins never found out why they were desperate enough to want to kill him. Still, he believes, “If I’d approached them as just two drunk sailors, with maybe a 502 or something. I’d probably be dead now.” Hawkins heard later that the driver plea-bargained to a misdemeanor charge of possession of a loaded firearm, and the passenger got off with no charges whatsoever. ‘‘That just blew me away,” Hawkins says bitterly. His life had been threatened for no apparent reason, and a potential cop-killer was back on the street. Now the young rookie knows what most San Diego police officers know: taking guns away from people who are willing and ready to use them is a routine part of the job, and because of the constitutional protection of the right to bear arms, most of the time the charges against the gun-toters don’t even amount to a felony.

In the back corner of the dilapidated police headquarters on Market Street, across the hall from the abandoned old jail, is a door with a sign on it that reads “Gun Desk.” Sean Donovan, a fortyish cop, sits in that drab, dimly lit room forty hours a week and does just one job: he receives, tags, and stores the 2250 guns San Diego police officers confiscate from the citizens of this city every year. In a nearby property room, where Donovan stores the guns, one entire wall is taken up with neatly tagged rifles and shotguns. They include expensive Italian-made fowling pieces, sawed-off shotguns with crudely filed barrels and hacked-off stocks, and the almost toy like terrorist’s delight — the Uzi submachine gun. There are shelves holding hundreds of wire bins, each bin containing five or six handguns. They include guns nearly identical to the standard police-issue .38 revolvers, cheap Brazilian automatics, ancient single-shot pistols, and .44 Magnums that could stop a grizzly bear. Donovan tries to put some order to this mass of killing tools by putting each handgun in a manila envelope and labeling it according to the category of crime it was used to commit — crimes against persons, crimes against property, victimless crimes, and so on. Then he quietly slashes through all the categories by saying, almost in a whisper, “What it all comes down to is, there are just too many guns out there. There are more guns in this country than people.”

Every gun in that room has a story to go with it, each carefully recorded on an incident report in standard police jargon and filed away in one of the olive-green file cabinets behind Donovan’s desk. Some of the stories made headlines — robberies, suicides, mass killings, cop shootings — but most of them are just stuck away in the file and never thought of again. Since there are so many of them, and since most of them ended without tragedy, they are far too routine for the media or anybody else to notice. They’re just another story of another young cop taking another gun away.

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